Much Ado About The Bard
"What's in a name?" wonders love-smitten Juliet. "That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."
Well, maybe — there are roses and roses. Some smell better than others, and lots of modern hybrids have next to no smell at all. But Juliet was just a kid; let's leave horticultural disputes to grown-ups with time on their hands.
We've been reading Shakespeare in my Brit Lit class at Watershed School, so I've been thinking about the Bard lately. And I've decided that names mean quite a lot, actually. (Juliet would soon discover this herself, with fatal consequences.) History hangs on names, and heritage, and honor. And there's good reason to believe that one name in particular — that of William Shakespeare — has been the cause of a grand historical injustice.
Shakespeare was fascinated — one might say obsessed — by cases of mistaken identity. His characters are forever being taken for someone else. They change names and genders and, in one memorable case, species as readily as my son changes ball caps. Could it be that the playwright himself was just that sort of slippery, protean character? To be more specific, is it possible that "William Shakespeare" was not a given name, like, say, "Charles Dickens," but rather a pen name, like "Mark Twain," "George Orwell" or "John Le Carré"?
A surprising number of people think so. These range from literary scholars to distinguished actors, Supreme Court justices, British M.P.s, fellow writers, amateur sleuths, Sigmund Freud, and your humble blogger.
We call ourselves Oxfordians. We believe that "William Shakespeare" was the nom de plume of one Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Now just to be clear: nobody on our side is arguing that somebody other than Shakespeare wrote the famous plays and sonnets. We argue that the author of those great works was not the same person as Will Shakspere (as he signed himself), a merchant and actor from Stratford-on-Avon.
Doubts about the authorship of Shakespeare's works have persisted for centuries, stretching back to the time the plays were published. Attempts have been made to "prove" that the true author was someone else; leading candidates have included Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon. Defenders of the man from Stratford have cited the sheer multiplicity of such claims — and the flimsiness of evidence to support them — as reason to reject any doubts as mere kookiness or conspiracy-mongering. But this begs the question: Why has Shakespeare alone — not Chaucer or Dante or Milton or Cervantes, or any other famous writer — inspired such controversy?
One reason is clear. There is, in the words of Samuel Schoenbaum, the predominant post-war Shakespeare biographer, a "vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject [i.e. the plays] and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record” concerning the Stratford man, who appears to have been largely self-educated, little-traveled, and ill-versed in such things as palace politics which play such a major role in Shakespeare's plays. Even those scholars who accept Shakspere as identical to Shakespeare (and they remain a majority in mainstream academia) have never gotten far beyond "sheer genius" as an explanation for how such a man came to acquire a vast and sweeping knowledge of the world.
Edward de Vere, in contrast, would seem to closely resemble the man — shrewd, wry, sexually ambivalent, cosmopolitan, and strikingly insightful into the manners and foibles of great monarchs — that many of us discern behind the poems and the plays. "If you were to construct a biography which ticked all the boxes," wrote one prominent Stratfordian "— if you were to read Shakespeare’s plays and infer a biography from it — it wouldn’t be Rowe’s [1709 biography of Will Shakspere], it would actually be the Earl of Oxford’s."
Born into a noble family, de Vere traveled widely, visiting many of the countries and cities used as settings in Shakespeare's works. He led a rich and disputatious life, gaining notoriety for, among other things, killing a pastry chef. He was close to Queen Elizabeth for reasons still not entirely clear. Beginning in 1586, she paid him £1,000 per year (over $400,000 in modern currency) for no apparent reason. The grant was remained under King James and continued until de Vere's death.
Beyond that, the case for Oxford becomes technical and complicated. There are correspondences between the plays and de Vere's known literary influences, including Ovid's Metamorphosis and a personally annotated Geneva Bible. There are parallels between de Vere and some of Shakespeare's characters (notably Hamlet). There is a portrait of Shakespeare wearing Oxford's emblem on a signet ring.
Prospective Oxfordians can find a wealth of information and argument at sites like The Shakespeare Oxford Society and The Shakespeare Fellowship. Skeptics and Stratfordians will find ammunition at The Shakespeare Authorship Page. The rest of us can wait for a forthcoming, pro-Oxfordian blockbuster by Roland Emmerich (best known for disaster films like 2012 and Independence Day). The film, which Emmerich describes as a political thriller, will be called Anonymous.